Codebreaker’s Tale: A Woman’s Role in Defeating Nazi Germany

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Kickin’ off my gig as a freelance writer in 2011, I snagged a job with a Brit military mag. My mother-in-law’s pal, Nancy Hookham, was part of the Bletchley Park crew crackin’ codes in WWII, and boy, did she have tales to tell.

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So I rock up to her place, and Nancy’s spillin’ the beans—a hush-hush gig so tight, not even her work mates knew the full score. I’m all ears, soaking in her saga.

She’s got this stash of old papers, badges, and certs, chattin’ ’bout her time as a Navy Wren with a spark in her eyes. “Fancy a job with a dash of mystery?” they said. “We got ‘special duties’ for you.” She was all over it, mystery and all.

Nancy’s grin was somethin’ else as she gabbed about her secret wartime mission.

Signed up in ’43, she got shipped to Bletchley Park—’BP’ for short. Had to swear secrecy before they’d even whisper her role. “You’ll be decryptin’ German chatter,” they said.

Couple weeks of hush-hush training later, she’s learning Baudot code, the German secret sauce for messages. So covert, she couldn’t even tell her desk mate.

Fast forward to today, and Bletchley’s a museum. Been there loads, and it’s a blast from the past. They got this mansion, war-time offices set up like back in the day, and a ballroom for the off-duty break.

Stroll through the huts where the magic happened, and you can almost feel the chill and the pressure. They show you the ropes, the key war moments, and the gadgets like the Lorenz machine Nancy cracked. Germans thought it was the bee’s knees for encryption, but BP’s boffins built a lookalike and blew that theory to bits.

Nancy’s job was plugging numbers and crunching them with a comptometer. “Spot a big number, and it’s hot stuff,” she’d say. They’d pass the good stuff to the code-crackers for the juicy details. Results were top secret, but sometimes they’d share a win, and it was high-fives all around.

These decoded gems went straight to the top brass, even the PM. The Lorenz was tougher than the Enigma, but the folks at BP were tougher still.

Enter Colossus, the monster machine and maybe the first-ever computer. Saw it myself at the National Museum of Computing there—it’s a sight, all wheels and levers, cracking Nazi codes like nobody’s business.

Nancy’s tales of Colossus were epic: it helped convince Hitler the Allies were hitting Calais, not Normandy. Big win for D-Day, that.

They reckon Colossus cut the war short by a couple of years. Meanwhile, the Germans were busy busting Britain’s naval signals, sinking tons of Merchant Navy ships.

The Wrens, they didn’t bunk at BP. Nancy was at Woburn Abbey, a bus ride away. Long shifts, night duty, and a half-hour drive each way. Not much time for the BP social scene, but she caught some dances at Woburn Village Hall and with the Yanks at the local air base.

Woburn Abbey was plush, but Nancy’s fondest memory? Nude sunbathing on the roof—until the brass caught wind and put a stop to their high-flying antics.

Post-war, Nancy switched to Fleet Mail before heading back to civilian life. Got hitched the same month as the Queen. Decades later, they’re at a Buckingham Palace garden party, celebrating big.

Looking back, Nancy’s proud as punch. The job was a grind, but it mattered. And now, knowing the full scope of BP’s work, it’s all the more thrilling.

Nancy’s journey from eager young patriot to Nazi Germany’s quiet nemesis was a wild ride, complete with ghost stories and cheeky escapades. Her eyes still twinkle at the memories, and I’m jazzed to have shared her story.

Nowadays, Bletchley Park’s a hit, pullin’ in crowds keen on Britain’s codebreaking legacy.

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